Three books that impacted the Mahatma

By Professor Satya Narayan Misra*

Mahatma Gandhi was an obsessive letter writer, penning thousands of epistles. Asked as to what ideology he follows he replied: I have not read Adam Smith, JS Mill, or Karl Marx. When in doubt, a little voice tells me that when in doubt, turn neither left nor right but always follow the narrow straight path. It’s a surprising statement as Smith was the father of classical capitalism, who wrote in his magnum opus Wealth of Nations (1776) that market forces as if by an invisible hand, will promote the welfare of all. JS Mill was a strong advocate of the primordial importance of the privation of pleasure. Karl Marx, on the other hand, saw seeds of destruction contained in capitalism as it was exploitative of labor. In his Communist Manifesto (1847) he gave a clarion to the workers to revolt and usher in a classless society. In Das Capital (1867), another magnum opus Maxx castigated the capitalists for their unwavering desire to accumulate wealth and exploit the proletariat. Though Gandhi was a witness to the Russian Revolution (1917), he was more attracted by the work of the British philosopher John Ruskin and his book Unto This Last (1860) and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894). Both these books went against the tide of those times and were proscribed.

He read John Ruskin’s book Unto the Last in 1904 as he was traveling by train to Durban. It was a blistering attack on market economics and the wealth creation dictum of Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism and promotion of the individual pleasure principle equally upset Ruskin. He was deeply concerned about the plight of the working class after the Industrial Revolution and strongly pitched for the equitable sharing of riches, where men were treated and paid justly. He strongly believed that an economy must be based on the consideration of humanity and economics must have its roots in ethics. This philosophy sowed the seeds of Tolstoy farm which was founded by Gandhiji near Johannesburg in South Africa in 1910, where the residents lived self-sufficiently, devoting their bodies to hard manual labor, their minds to the ideals of truth, and nonviolence, and children exposed to the beauty of vocational education.

He read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You in Johannesburg in 1893. A rambling and repetitive book Tolstoy wrote that all those who waged war were an affront to the teaching of Christ. He was anguished that the Russian Orthodox Church supported state policy for war. A good Christian, he wrote, should follow his conscience rather than unfair laws imposed by Tsars, bishops, and generals. In 1908 Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi Only by using love as a weapon through passive resistance, the native Indian people can overthrow the colonial British empire. Gandhi wrote Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and truthfulness of this book, all the books seemed to pale into insignificance.

When Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy as to whether he could name the firm after the name of the great novelist, he wrote back I have known about your work in leading the Satyagraha movement in South Africa and your quest for equality. Nothing will give me greater pleasure than my name being associated with the community firm and high idealism that you propose to build. Tolstoy compared the work of the Indians to men in Russia who were refusing military conscription. “They assert with audacity that God is with us and God is more powerful than men” The three major ideas in these two books, viz dignified living for all, nonviolence, and passive resistance remained unshakable philosophical pillars for Gandhi throughout his movement in South Africa and struggle for independence of India thereafter.

There was, however, one book that riled Mahatma Gandhi to no end when he returned to India. It was Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India in 1927. This book was a scathing attack on India’s religion, retrograde customs, pernicious practice of early child marriage, and lack of medical care for pregnant women. While many of the practices described by Ms. Mayo undoubtedly existed in India, she did not give credit to the effort of Indian reformers to end these evils and completely exonerated the British authority from any responsibility. The Britishers were delighted with the book and a free copy was presented to every Member of Parliament. Gandhi described a book as the report of a drainpipe inspector endowed with one purpose of opening the drains of the country. Gandhi charged Ms. Mayo with a selective representation of facts.
At the same time, he insisted that we must not overlook the dark side of the picture where it existed like child marriage and ill-treatment of women. Women were a conspicuous part of his freedom movement.

One of the most definitive biographies written early on Gandhi was by Romaine Rolland, the French novelist. Rolland heard of Gandhi in 1920 from the Bengali mystic Dilip Roy and the Nobel laureate Tagore. His book was published in 1924 and covered the period ending with Gandhi’s arrest in 1922. He wrote, ‘His body is walled in as in a tomb, but Gandhis invisible soul still animates India’s vast body.’ A man of faith, he was greatly upset by the wind of violence sweeping the world and believed that in the old crumbling world; ‘there was no hope, or great light, except Gandhi. Albert Einstein wrote ‘Generations to come will scarce belief that such a person in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’. Indeed, he is not merely an insignia of our national currency or a totem for periodic remembrance but a robust philosophy that stands on three legs; abdication of violence at all costs, community living eschewing communalism, forsaking relentless quest for wealth creation to create a just, humane and harmonious society.


*The author is a Trustee in the Sarvodaya Foundation, Odisha


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

Also Read

Comments are closed.